Just last week, my media ministry Word on Fire marked a milestone: 10,000,000 views on our YouTube channel. This achievement fills me with gratitude both to God and to the many people who have taken the time to watch one or more of the videos that I’ve produced over the past several years. It also provides the occasion for me to reflect a bit on both the pitfalls and advantages of evangelizing through the new media.
When we commenced our outreach through YouTube seven years ago, we did so in the manner of an experiment. YouTube had just come into being at that time, and it largely featured crude, homemade videos of cats jumping off the roof and babies gurgling for their mother’s camcorder. I thought that we should try to invade this space with the Gospel and so I resolved to make short video commentaries on movies, music, current affairs, cultural happenings, etc. We had absolutely no idea whether anyone would watch, and at first, our offerings garnered just a small audience. I distinctly remember being thrilled when one of our videos managed to pass the 500 views mark for the first time. But over the months and years, word spread, and we began to build an audience. The first video of ours to go viral was my response to Bill Maher’s awful movie “Religulous.” In the course of a few weeks, it had been seen by 100,000 people, and it continues to perform well, even to the present. In fact, the atheists have been my most active friends on the Internet. Whenever I do a video on Maher or Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking, I get a strong reaction and lots of views.
One of the features of YouTube that I appreciate the most is its interactivity. At first, I didn’t realize that people could comment on videos—but I quickly found out. Most of the responses, I have to admit, are negative. There are an awful lot of people in the virtual world who hate God, religion, the Catholic Church, priests, etc., and they come after me with some energy. But after getting over the initial shock of reading such vitriol, I have actually come to enjoy the give-and-take with my detractors. In fact, on a number of my forums, quite lengthy and sometimes quite sophisticated arguments have unfolded, somewhat in the manner of Platonic dialogues. YouTube provides pretty thorough demographics of one’s viewership, and so we have been able to determine that the vast majority of our viewers are young men in their twenties and thirties—the very group that the Church has a notoriously hard time reaching. That the Internet allows me to engage young men who would never darken the doors of a Catholic church or come to a church-sponsored event is a source of great encouragement to me.
The format that I have chosen is the short video commentary (8-10 minutes), based usually on a column that I have prepared for publication in the print media. Early on, some communications “experts” advised me to lose the Roman collar and appear in civilian clothes, so as to attract the more secular audience. I never took that advice, thank God. I always want it to be clear that I am a Catholic priest speaking on behalf of the Catholic Church—and I don’t think young people are the least bamboozled by awkward attempts at “relevance,” just the contrary. Some of my academic colleagues have always been skeptical that any serious communication of the faith can take place in such a circumscribed and popular forum. They maintain that nothing shy of a thirty page, heavily footnoted paper can do justice to a complex question. I was trained as an academic and have spent nearly twenty-five years teaching and writing just such papers and books, but I emphatically dissent from a position that would effectively remove the Catholic voice from the wider cultural forum. John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, C.S. Lewis, and Fulton Sheen all wrote substantive but accessible articles for the mainstream press, and YouTube is a comparable arena today. If intellectually serious believers absent themselves from the wider conversation and retreat to their libraries and classrooms, the public space will belong to the atheists and secularists.
As to my general approach, I have tended toward what Cardinal Dolan of New York calls “affirmative orthodoxy,” which is to say, emphasizing what the Church is for rather than what it is against. I have also adopted the patristic method of seeking out semina verbi (seeds of the Word), hints and echoes of the Gospel that can be found, often in distorted form, in the high and low contemporary culture. Accordingly I have argued that Spiderman, Superman, “True Grit’s” Rooster Cogburn, “Gran Torino’s” cranky Walt Kowalski, “The Shawshank Redemption’s” Andy Dufresne, and Frodo the Hobbit all convey some dimension of Jesus Christ; and I have maintained that both Christopher Hitchens’s essays and the “Twilight” films speak inchoately but surely of the longing of the human heart for God.
We find ourselves at a moment in the history of communication comparable to the early sixteenth century. The printing press constituted a revolution not only in communication technology as such but more specifically in the propagation of the Gospel. Something very similar, but even more explosive, is at work today. The social media provide tools for the announcing of the Good News that Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Newman, and even Fulton Sheen never dreamed possible. The best way that I can celebrate the 10,000,000 views on YouTube is to invite many others to join me in declaring Christ from the rooftops and to the ends of the world.